Last Romantic or Last Victorian: Yeats, Tennyson, and Browning

  • George Bornstein
Part of the Macmillan Literary Annuals S. book series (MLA)


To consider the affinity of Yeats — or any other twentieth-century poet — to the Victorians contradicts a fundamental dogma of modernist poetics. We say, did not modernism arise in protest against a flaccid Victorian theory and practice of the poetic art? Didn’t verbosity, abstraction, and insincerity continually undermine the palace of art in the nineteenth century? How absurd in our ears would Yeats have sounded had he declared in “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931” that “We were the last Victorians — chose for theme/ Traditional sanctity and loveliness … whatever most can bless/The mind of man or elevate a rhyme” (VP p. 491–2). Yet even the content of that overtly romantic avowal (choosing “traditional sanctity and loveliness”), as well as its diction (“Bless the mind of man”), suggest how much more Yeats owed to the Victorian era than simply spending the first thirty-six years of life in it. Ordinarily, we do not see this because the Victorians play the same role in the politics of poetic history now that the romantics did in the early 1 950s — the disloyal opposition. Both Victorian poetry itself and its role in English literary history await that transvaluation which romanticism has undergone in the last quarter century.1 The desire to show how such a change in context might modify our view of Yeats makes me here scant his established linkage with a Victorian counter-tradition running from Hallam’s redaction of romanticism through Rossetti, Pater, and Morris to the aesthetes of the Rhymers’ Club.


Romantic Tradition Modern Poetry Personal Intensity Dramatic Monologue Oxford Book 
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  1. 3.
    W. B. Yeats (ed.), The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936) p. v; hereafter cited in the text as Oxf. Cf. Yeats’s letter to T. Sturge Moore on this point (L TSM p. 182) and “Modern Poetry: a Broadcast” (E00I p. 491).Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    Matthew Arnold, Lectures and Essays in Criticism, ed. R. H. Super ( Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962 ) p. 390.Google Scholar
  3. 14.
    Letters to the New Island ed. Horace Reynolds (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934) p. 98; all other quotations from this notice appear on pp. 97–9. Hereafter cited as LNI.Google Scholar
  4. 24.
    Browning: Poetical Works 1833–1864 ed. Ian Jack (London: Oxford University Press, 1970) p. 910, 11. 318–27.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Richard J. Finneran 1982

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  • George Bornstein

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